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June - 2004 - issue > Technology
Nirup Krishnamurthy CIO, United Airlines
Karthik Sundaram
Monday, May 31, 2004
MAA-NY-MAA-NY-ORD. The itinerary included an M.S., and a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from the State University of New York, Buffalo, a brief stint of entrepreneurism in Chennai (erstwhile Madras), and growing to the current title of corporate CIO, United Airlines for Nirup Krishnamurthy, Vice President of Information Services, and corporate Chief Information Officer responsible for IT strategy and implementation functions at the airline behemoth. He also leads United’s joint IT efforts with the Star Alliance.

Krishnamurthy began his career with United in 1990, within the modeling group of the finance division, helping in optimization techniques and business decision support services. In 1995 he took up a manager’s role in developing planning systems for some of United’s businesses, officially moving into the IT domain within the company. Some of his marquee deliveries have been developing and executing automation strategies for the company’s Flight Operations, Onboard Service and Cargo divisions. Post the 9/11 tragedy, the shrinking economy and travel market drove the airline into bankruptcy, which engendered a shake-up in the echelons of the management. In early January 2003, Nirup Krishnamurthy became part of the new management team, assuming the title of Vice President – Information Services. “The mandate then was to create a short-term technology strategy that was designed to help United battle bankruptcy by implementing major cost reduction and revenue enhancing initiatives,” says Krishnamurthy.

As the business divisions within United underwent their restructuring, plans for the long-term growth were simultaneously being cast. “In most such plans, a modern underlying technology platform was seen as an imperative enabler and the need for a long-term IT strategy became evident,” observes Krishnamurthy, who was suddenly faced with a huge demand for technology projects. Upon being appointed Corporate Chief Information Officer in October 2003, Krishnamurthy brought in McKinsey to formulate a long term technology program that was clearly aligned with UAL’s corporate strategy. “The objectives were three-fold,” he recalls. The first was to create a prioritized IT investment portfolio owned by senior executives that was designed to maximize the overall return of the IT dollar for the corporation. The pre-bankruptcy era had added on large tracts of obsolescence in the IT infrastructure. This led to setting out the second objective of conducting a risk analysis and forming a risk-mitigation plan to tackle the inheritance issue. The third, overall objective was to look inwards and chart out a game plan for the IT organization itself—how much to own, what to outsource, how to drive efficiencies, and how to deliver on the promise to the portfolios. Krishnamurthy and his team have embarked on an implementation plan since the fourth quarter of last year.

Airport technologies, says the CIO, have been a major component of the restructured airline’s initiative. “Improving the customer experience at the airport is a crucial component of our overall business strategy,” Krishnamurthy says. “We are implementing solutions and interfaces that would ultimately help customers arrive, check themselves and their baggage in, and board the aircraft all by themselves.” The plan to deliver such self-servicing solutions is being implemented at the key hubs in the U.S., and would become standard at all United terminals worldwide in the next few years. “Areas like terminal information display, baggage tracking, and self service check-in are receiving significant investments,” says the United CIO.

Within United, Krishnamurthy is working on an enterprise-wide network upgrade. Linked to this upgrade is another larger project called the “Desktop Refresh Program.” Over 30,000 desktops across the domestic network will get a full makeover, bringing them up to speed with the upgraded network. Also underway is a project to revamp the United.com website, on target to go live in the summer of 2005. “The investments in all these projects are significant, but there is a laser-focus on aligning these investments to help the company emerge from bankruptcy and compete effectively,” comments the CIO. With most of the customer-facing components being brand-driven—United.com, Easy Check-in, and so on—the team has formulated a judicious mix of packaged and developed applications that have delivered on the brand promise. “In this business, the brand strategy has played a large role in driving some of the underlying IT solutions to enable the brand promise,” Krishnamurthy reveals. Not just that, the CIO has been watchful of developing customer touch-point products in synch with each other. “The experience that starts at the website has to transfer to the airport entry point and continue onboard the flight until the customer reaches his/her final destination —seamlessly,” he explains.

Towards this end, he has unified the IT approach to business. “In the past, each business division would do their own thing in isolation, and the resulting legacies have been cumbersome,” he comments. While the synchronized upgrades and overhauls are in progress, Krishnamurthy is also watching for opportunities to retire or take out legacies without stress on the business delivery. Not surprisingly, the history of the airline has left the CIO holding large swathes of data. “We have no dearth of it,” he laughs. “What we lack is information!” Currently, the team has managed to capture the data into categories like operations, customer and financial warehouses. Going forward, Krishnamurthy intends to establish an enterprise-wide strategy and background technologies that would integrate operations, customer and finance data-capture into usable information.

In another example of IT following the business need, the CIO studied the mobile workforce within United—pilots, flight attendants, and customer service representatives—to form a strategy for enterprise mobility solutions. “Providing information and capabilities to them—accessible through their devices—has helped them interact much better with their base stations, and has improved our efficiencies,” notes Krishnamurthy.

The “renewed” airline is also overhauling its information security strategy. “A couple of months ago, we created a role-based security charter, where the data owner would be responsible for defining the security standards,” explains the CIO. This has afforded a good advantage—the data ownership is unique in its security access, thus less prone to hacks. Of the 65,000-strong workforce in the airline, over 50,000 are mobile and need secure connections into the airline’s IT infrastructure. This has thrown up some interesting challenges for the CIO, who has to be careful in creating a cost effective information access control that would not limit the airline’s efficiency.

In an effort to reduce its unit IT costs, United has invested in SkyTECH Solutions Inc., where Krishnamurthy serves on the Board of Directors. SkyTECH Solutions is a joint venture with the New Jersey based Chatterjee Group and provides offshore software development services to the travel and transportation industry. “SkyTECH has proved to be a valuable partner in not only providing these services but also helping United handle the peaks and valleys in demand effectively,” adds Krishnamurthy.

Leading a team of over 1,800, Nirup Krishnamurthy declares the current course of United and information technology as “very exciting.” “United is more customer-centric than ever before, and the market is going to see some interesting interactions between the company and the customer—a large proportion of which banks on robust IT layers enabling them,” says the CIO. A statement grounded in reality, indeed.
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